It is difficult to know what to believe in Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut, Emily. This is a creative reimagining of the life of Emily Brontë, attempting to answer the question, “How did you write Wuthering Heights?” A question asked by Emily’s sister Charlotte at the opening of the film.

O’Connor attempts to provide the answer. The sedate surroundings of the Haworth parsonage do not immediately appear to be the setting for the passionate, erotic writing of Brontë’s novel. O’Connor ignores many facts and relies on the mysterious and the supernatural to explain the writing. Ghosts and undead spirits could indeed be part of the lives of a church family surrounded by gravestones and funerals. 

The plot and characters of Wuthering Heights are imprinted on the film. Is O’Connor’s Emily an embodiment of Heathcliff? Or is O’Connor suggesting that the relationship between Emily and Branwell serves as the creative impulse for the bond between Heathcliff and Cathy? The siblings are close; Branwell, played by Fionn Whitehead, introduces his sister to his wild lifestyle which includes alcohol and opium. 

There are many parallels with the novel: spying on the Lintons and then being chased by dogs is directly lifted from the book. The Lintons, described in Wuthering Heights as pale and whiny, are used in the film to illustrate the antithesis of Emily, and the film’s motif of windows being opened echoes Emily Bronte’s use of windows as a metaphor for a barrier that prevents characters from fulfilling their dreams.

Physically, Emma Mackey’s Emily is taller and darker than her delicate sisters: a judgemental Charlotte played by Alexandra Dowling and the gentle Anne played by Amelia Gething. Mackey’s Emily is described as a, ‘scruff’ and, ‘the strange one’. She is a changeling and outcast in this family of English roses, just as Heathcliffe was. 

O’Connor’s filmed exploration of Emily Bronte has a strong cast and vivid imagery. Branwell and Emily embrace for the final time through a bedsheet hanging on the washing line, when Emily pulls the sheet back Branwell is not there. The intensity of Emily’s emotions in Wuthering Heights is explained in the film by giving her a volatile sexual relationship with curate William Weightman, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Weightman existed but such an affair is unlikely to have happened. Historically it is supposed that the pretty Anne was his romantic interest.

Frances O’Connor has presented the life of Emily Brontë through the prism of her masterpiece Wuthering Heights. The Brontë sisters’ writing is revered, and the film Emily enhances their myth while presenting the audience with the conundrum: what is fact and what is fiction? 

Screening at Eden Court, Inverness until Thu 27 Oct 2022, and at cinemas nationwide